Under a Verdant Carpet
by DJ Burnham
forum: Under a Verdant Carpet
speculative fiction for the internet generation.

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Under a Verdant Carpet


        Pete Dorrit cycled along the unpromising dirt track two miles to the west of the town and apparently in the middle of nowhere. After another twenty minutes of diligent peddling he turned down an even narrower path and eventually came to a little cottage. It had belonged to his Great Aunt Phyllis and she had left it to him in her will. As a consequence, Pete had also inherited three goats, twelve chickens and a beehive, as well as a sprawling allotment on which he now grew a fabulous array of fruits and vegetables. He swung off his still-moving bicycle in one elegant maneouvre, pulled open one of the garage’s wooden doors, leant his bike against the interior wall and pulled a small canvas bag from one of the panniers. It contained a few essentials from his workplace, Shopeezy, which he couldn’t produce himself, minor luxuries such as tea, soap, spaghetti, olive oil and a bottle of his favourite malt whiskey. He ran his right hand over his sweaty head—cropped to a Number 6 by hand-held clippers—and carried the sturdy green bag indoors.

        The wind-up clock in the entrance hall chimed seven times as he opened the front door. It had been an average day, in an average job, working on rotating shifts as one of the hypermarket’s three managers. He’d done his eight hours and it was Bruce Fipple’s shift through to 2am, when Jane Gray took over. Pete almost looked forward to going to work, ever since Jane had started at Shopeezy in Straddlefitch. Prior to that he’d never had much enthusiasm for the job and he’d always felt slightly guilty and ill at ease about working in the sort of place that his grandmother would’ve hated. Mind you, things had improved since her day; at least all of the non-biodegradable packaging was recycled. These days, however, he’d get there half an hour before his 8am start time, just to hang around and spend some time in her company. Jane was in her late twenties, with lustrous curls of red hair, blue eyes, a pretty face and a cheerful demeanour. He’d liked her from the moment they’d met. Pete was a couple of years younger and usually rather shy around the fairer sex, but she made him feel comfortable, relaxed and confident. He just hadn’t quite plucked up the courage to ask her back to his home, fearing that she might think him a bit weird when she found out how he avoided the trappings of modern life. Still, as far as he was concerned, modern life was rubbish—

        A sudden tremor rattled the pots and pans in the kitchen. It passed within seconds, leaving Pete shocked and uneasy.

* * *

        Phyllis and her husband Frank Dorrit had both come from environmentally aware families, so during the 2018 Year of the Environment—the same year that they’d bought their country idyll—they quickly went to work equipping it with the most up to date green energy technology. The roof tiles were replaced with solar photovoltaic shingles, overlaid with water-heating vacuum tube panels and integrated with wind power generators. They even installed a micro hydropower unit in the stream that ran through the garden. Most of the equipment was bespoke and made from renewable materials and long-lasting corrosion-resistant metals, with little in the way of plastics—except for a thin layer covering some of the cables. An immense compost heap had pipes running through its midst to warm more water for their central heating, and they employed sound biomass principles to generate fuel for a zero-emissions burner. Frank and Phyllis had scoured the reclamation yards for a cast iron bath and radiators, a laundry mangle, traditional cylinder-action push-lawnmower, gardening equipment, everything and anything that had lasted the test of time and used the minimum of resources. Their water came from rainwater harvesting and storage in huge underground tanks, which could supply all of their washing needs as well as being filtered to provide high-quality drinking water.

        After Frank passed away Phyllis had kept everything in good working order, but as she too grew older, a young Pete was called upon to help out. At first her apparent eccentricity had daunted him, but he soon came to spend a great deal of his school holidays with her, carrying out some of the equipment maintenance that Phyllis found more difficult, and coming to love her alternative way of life. With no children of her own, Pete became the sole benefactor when she passed away. He’d learnt a great deal from her and luckily she’d kept copious notes, as well as all of the original manuals and specs on the equipment. At first it had been totally at odds with the life he’d been used to living with his parents in Straddlefitch, but it was that difference which had fuelled his particular teenage rebellion and he revelled in it.

* * *

        A hundred feet below the steady curve of Poppy Hill, to the North of Straddlefitch, the bubble of gas continued its insidious expansion, produced by the methanogenic bacteria that were amongst the old rubbish tip’s tenants. The surface of the ground had been pushed up twenty feet in the previous century. The closure and landscaping of the planet’s last tips—or Household Waste Amenity Points, as they had become known—had marked an end to the voracious consumption of resources that came with an out-dated society, blinkered by the consequences of their actions. Ironically it had become a financial necessity, as the costs of processing the raw materials started to outweigh the fiscal benefits of recycling; they were also simply running out of places to dump it all. Humans had swept their detritus under a verdant carpet for far too long.

        Water had filtered down into the warm decomposing mass and a strange, new isolated anaerobic environment had developed. In the incredible temperature at its core extremophiles appeared. An evolutionary jump threw up new characteristics in the industrious microbes that had been dutifully munching on the organic waste provided by their human caterers. Some were able to biodegrade metals, paints and oils, others became capable of bioremediation and decontamination, whilst a few employed even newer tricks, such as biocatalysis. The by-products of this activity paved the way for new breeds of opportunistic bacteria on the sticky biofilms that began to appear. Their isolated community would have continued like this for centuries to come, were it not for an incredibly rare event in that region. A mild earthquake opened up a slender crack beneath the fizzing, rotting, bubbling mass of rubbish. That crack extended a further sixty feet down into the rock, until it was halted by the ancient channel of an underground spring. Some of the gloop, from the bizarre fermentations of the rubbish tip, slowly dribbled down the crack, into the stream and away towards Straddlefitch. It was that quake which had shaken Pete’s cottage.

* * *

        The window cleaners from maintenance had been round early that morning and a glance at the Cred-display screen on the kitchen wall showed that they’d debited her account accordingly. It was a wonderful morning, so Jane decided to forgo the delights of the MultiMed Unit’s breakfast banality and sit in the garden for a while. She’d been contemplating why it was that Pete Dorrit hadn’t asked her out yet when he obviously liked her and, truth be told, she really liked him too. He was well kempt, fit, good-looking and had a kindhearted nature.

        She flicked a switch and the patio doors swung open. The left door fell off its hinges with a thud, balanced for an instant, and fell forwards onto the concrete slabs, smashing its glass panel. Jane stood there for a few seconds, both astonished and disbelieving. The doors were guaranteed for thirty years and her block of two-storey apartments had only been built four years ago. She’d had hers from new and was always careful with fixtures and fittings, keen to make them last as long as possible and benefit from the new resale incentives, let alone the longevity bonuses, associated with the mortgage. She sat down heavily in her Government-approved recycled-plastic comfort-moulded garden chair and gaped at the mess. Just then there was a scream from the first floor apartment three doors along, followed by another even louder crash. Violet Stitch had just opened her bathroom window, it too had flown straight off its hinges and down into the garden below. Jane stood up again and went to investigate the remains of her patio door. The hinges were metal and solid enough, but the material around their insertion into the door itself had bent away like soft toffee. She ran her hand over the inner frame and the rest of it seemed okay. A piece of the glass fell away and she noticed a fragment of plastic attached to it, similar in its extruded appearance to that of the hinge insertion. Gingerly, taking care not to cut herself, she turned the door over. The plastic on the outer frame was as soft as putty. She cleared up the mess and phoned maintenance. It would be at least an hour before they could come and sort it out, but as the shared gardens were enclosed with a perimeter security system she decided to go for her daily jog. As she set off she could still hear raised voices from Violet’s apartment.

        Jane had barely got a hundred yards down the road when she noticed the bay windows of one of the nearby detached houses. Several of the panels were falling out onto the perfectly cut lawn, apparently of their own volition.

        Half an hour later and she was toweling herself down after a refreshing shower. Absent-mindedly she went to open her bathroom window, but stopped herself in time. Flicking a switch by the mirrored cabinet, she boosted the extractor fan instead. She wandered out into the hallway and along to the kitchen, swiftly drank a pint of cool water from the filtration unit and headed back to her bedroom. As she passed the bathroom she noticed that the shower curtain, with its colourful fish and dolphin pattern, had started to develop holes. These rapidly grew in size, as though someone was applying an invisible flame to them. She watched in horror, as they dissolved and melted away before her eyes. Suddenly a jet of water shot out sideways from the junction of the inlet pipe and the toilet cistern, spraying her with cold water, and she jumped back into the doorway. As another jet spurted up towards the ceiling she noticed a bulge in the plaster where it struck. The ceiling gave way and the contents of upstairs’ bathtub deposited itself in front of her. Thankfully, Brian, who lived upstairs, had been running the bath, but hadn’t actually got in it yet. His face appeared through the hole, between the sodden beams.

        ‘Bloody hell, how did that happen?’

        ‘Presumably you forgot to turn the taps off,’ she said, giving him a withering look and wrapping her towel tightly around herself.

        ‘No, definitely not. It was barely half full and I’d already turned them off. I was on the phone when I heard the crash. Turned 'em off when I heard the phone ring. Blimey! Are you okay? Were you in there?’ He surveyed the mess, worriedly.

        ‘No, I’d just got out because of that,’ Jane pointed at the growing sprays of water next to the cistern.

        ‘What? That’d started before the ceiling went?’

        ‘Yeah, and my shower curtain’s just melted,’ she said, pointing to an unrecognisable smattering of gunk in her bath, partially obscured by plaster from the ceiling.

        ‘Melted,’ Brian repeated, slowly.

        ‘Yup, clean vanished away right in front of me. Never seen anything like it…actually, that’s not all.’

        ‘How do you mean?’

        ‘One of my patio doors fell off. The plastic had gone all cheesy around the hinges.’

        ‘Hey, Violet lost her bathroom window, told me about it just as I was getting home from my shift.’

        ‘Yeah, I heard her scream when it went. This has all got be connected.’

        ‘How? Surely it’s just a coincidence?’

        ‘Well, something weird is going on, I know that much. I saw some other windows dropping out of one of those posh houses opposite.’ She covered herself up self-consciously. ‘Right, well if you’ve finished staring I’m going to get dressed and then I think we’d better warn everyone in the block to be careful.’

        ‘Oh, right, sorry,’ Brian replied, blushing. ‘Um, I’ll go and put some clothes on too and come down to give you a hand clearing up.’

        ‘Leave it for a minute Brian. I mean, yeah, thanks and all that, I’d appreciate some help, but maybe just whiz round and let everyone on your floor know what’s happened and to be on their guard, yeah?’

        ‘Okay. I’ll do that and then I’ll be down.’ Brian had a thing for Jane, but sadly for him it wasn’t reciprocated.

        ‘Great, see you in a bit.’ Jane ran into the bedroom, quickly flung on a pair of jogging bottoms, tee-shirt and trainers, grabbed her keys and headed off to ring all the doorbells on her floor.

        The other occupants of the block all had similarly strange experiences to report. Some had leaks from their washing machines, others had melting washing-up bowls and dissolving plastic-handled cutlery. Once they started looking, everyone had some form of water egress into their apartment.

        ‘How did you get on?’ Brian asked, as he trotted down the steps to join Jane.

        ‘Same story, how about you?’

        ‘Yep, likewise. Look, I reckon we should knock the water supply off until maintenance can get here. What do you think?’

        ‘Good idea, do you know where our mains supply comes in?’

        ‘Umm, yeah, I think there’s a stopcock under a metal flap out on the pavement.’

        Having turned off the water supply, they went about clearing up and waited for the maintenance crew to arrive. It was past Jane’s bedtime, but she didn’t have a great deal of choice in the matter and stoically set about making some coffee.

* * *

        Two days later and the town of Straddlefitch was seething with television crews and journalists, as more and more incidents occurred. At 4am Pete’s mobile phone rang. It was Jane and she was in a right old state.

        ‘Pete, please, can you come over to work? I know it’s horribly early, but Bruce didn’t show up and something weird is going on here. I could really do with some help…sorry.’ He could hear the alarm in her voice.

        ‘I’ll be right over, Jane. Hang in there, love.’ He was delighted that she’d called him. The whole knight in shining armour thing could really help to cement the relationship he’d been hankering after. On the other hand, what was wrong? He knew some of what was going on, but she sounded really upset.

        Pete peddled back to Straddlefitch as fast as he could, hiding his bike in some bushes on the edge of town in case the growing civil unrest extended to theft. He ran into the hypermarket and was met by a scene of total chaos. Every aisle was running with the contents of burst packaging and the smell was extraordinary, as the frothing domestic chemistry set oozed its way across the floor. Pete gagged on the overpowering stench of cleaning products, blended with the sickly saccharine aromas of fizzy drinks. He steeled himself and plunged into the pandemonium. Night staff had been struggling with mops, buckets and brooms, but the buckets were collapsing and curses were giving way to screams as the plastic soles of their uniform shoes split and fell apart. Viscous, slippery, unimaginable mixtures squished between their toes, causing them to slip and slide as they ran for the exit. In the midst of the turmoil stood Jane, despair and confusion etched onto her face.

        ‘Oh God, Pete, thank goodness,’ she cried out. ‘It was like this when I got here, total bedlam.’

        As he reached her, Pete instinctively threw his arms around her and held her close. ‘Hey, hey, it’s okay Jane, it’s okay,’ he soothed.

        ‘Bollocks it is!’ she shouted, pushing him away. ‘Look at this place, it’s a total bloody mess. What the hell is happening to this town? Have we been cursed or something?’ She was beside herself, forcing back the tears as anger, frustration and helplessness threatened to overwhelm her.

        ‘Whatever it is, we can’t do anything about it right now. Let’s just get off the shop floor, literally, and think about it. Yeah?’ Pete held his hand out to her.

        ‘Yeah, okay, sorry, just…it’s on my watch, you know?’ she said, with exasperation.

        ‘I know, I’d feel the same if it was me, but it was already under way, you couldn’t have done anything. Come on’. He took her hand, pulled her towards the doors to the stairs and noticed the look of terror on her face.

        ‘Oh my God, it’s getting through my shoes!’ she cried out.

        ‘Hang on.’ Pete grabbed a pile of discarded metal shopping baskets, flipped them over and threw then down on the floor, forming a row of stepping-stones. ‘Follow me.’ Between them they passed the baskets from behind Pete to in front of Jane, whilst gradually balancing on them and painstakingly proceeded towards the stairs. They’d almost made it when one of the shelving units in the next aisle collapsed and cannoned into the one next to them, making it lurch threateningly.

        ‘Run for it,’ Pete shouted, and they threw themselves through the door and to the safety of the stairs. Pete helped her to tug off her decomposing shoes, before turning to his own fabric trainers, which seemed oddly unaffected, but he took them off anyway.

        Up in the office Pete found some alcohol wipes in the emergency medical cabinet and turned to find that Jane had already discarded her spattered trousers. Overcoming his natural reserve he knelt down in front of her and tenderly cleaned the revolting concoction from her feet. She giggled at the tickling sensation.

        ‘Thanks, Pete, you’re a nice guy,’ she said, in between squirming and giggling.

        ‘It’s a pleasure,’ he replied, honestly, as his gaze lingered on her legs.

        ‘I’ve got a spare pair in my locker,’ she said, quietly.

        ‘Huh?’ Pete was still distracted.


        ‘Oh, umm, yeah, of course, hang on a minute.’

        ‘It’s fine, I’ll go,’ she said. She stood up and padded over to her locker, punched in the combination, pulled out a pair of jeans and slipped into them. ‘So, what do you reckon then?’ Jane asked.

        ‘Very nice, suit you,’ he replied.

        ‘No,’ she laughed again, ‘downstairs, silly.’

        ‘Oh right,’ he said, grinning sheepishly. ‘Looks like everything and anything with plastic packaging has split open or collapsed. What have the cleaners been using during the dead zone?’ The dead zone was the time between 4am and 6am when hardly any shoppers came in.

        ‘Standard bio-friendly organic products.’

        ‘Mixed with water, at all?’ Pete inquired.

        ‘No, not as far as I know. Those new cleaning products are meant to be used straight from the bottle. Why do you ask?’

        ‘Well, the weird stuff I’ve been hearing about seems to be connected to the water supply. Has anything else odd happened over the last two nights?’

        ‘Not as such,’ she replied, frowning.

        ‘Hmmm. No fire drills? Maybe the sprinklers kicked in by accident? Happened to me a few months back.’

        ‘Nope, we had a test fire drill last month and the sprinklers are on a new failsafe circuit.’

        ‘Ah, right, okay. So, describe the previous two nights.’

        ‘Well, you know, pretty routine. Last night tailed off by 3am, so we ran a stock check. Otherwise, err, no, nothing out of the ordinary.’

        ‘Was that a manual check? You know, a full clip board effort, rather than computerized bar code to warehouse stuff?’

        ‘Oh yeah. Everyone was given an aisle to cover.’

        ‘How hot was it?’


        ‘It was pretty hot at my place last night. Was it the same here?’

        ‘Well, yeah, I guess. The air con was down, so apart from those who got the freezers to check…yeah, it was baking.’

        ‘Did you get sweaty?’

        ‘I beg your pardon?’ Jane didn’t like the direction the conversation was taking.

        ‘Did you get sweaty,’ he repeated, ‘perspire.’

        ‘I know what you mean, just a rather personal question is all. Since you ask, yeah, it was a clammy night.’

        ‘So people were moving the stock around, touching it, making a visual count?’

        ‘Duh, yeah. How else are you gonna do it?’

        ‘It can’t be…’ he said quietly.

        ‘Can’t be what?’ Jane picked up on the agitation in his voice.

        ‘The only contact with the stock was from the staff, from being handled. Nothing else could have caused it. If it was just a few things, oh I dunno…just stuff containing water, but it wasn’t, was it? All the plastic containers fell apart.’

        ‘What are you getting at?’ she asked uncomfortably.

        ‘There’s something in the water supply.’

        ‘Yeah,’ she said slowly.

        ‘We drink water!’ Pete swallowed nervously.

        They were both quiet for a moment, then Jane said, ‘What? You think we’re infected with something?’

        ‘Could be. Can you think of any other reason for all this?’

        ‘Look, before we jump to any kind of whacked-out conclusions, maybe we should just call Head Office and let them figure it out?’ she said, sharply.

        ‘Yes, of course, you’re right.’

* * *

        The Hypermarket had remained closed the following day and scientists from across the country were running tests. Jane had gone back home, but with no running water, a partially demolished bathroom and the continued disintegration of her apartment, she’d packed a bag and taken Pete up on his offer of staying at his place. They sat together listening to the news on the old radio set, which Pete had upgraded to receive digital broadcasts.

        ‘An extended newscast this evening charts the deepening mystery surrounding the strange events occurring in the little Dorset town of Straddlefitch,’ said Digicom’s Ken Bagfurl. ‘As has already been reported, over the past few days the infrastructure of Straddlefitch appears to be falling apart. Plastic windows, doors and plumbing were the first to be affected, but this swiftly spread to the local Shopeezy Hypermarket with the resultant collapse of all of the store’s plastic packaging. Today we have been getting reports of car components such as steering wheels, dashboards and door handles softening and becoming dangerously unsafe. Drivers talk of them “Turning into plasticine” in their hands. The Department of Health, along with the Head of the Commission for Public Safety, has declared Straddlefitch a no-go area and placed it under strict quarantine conditions, along with a ten-mile exclusion zone perimeter. Extra police have been called in to assist the Dorset Constabulary, as there have already been reports of criminals trying to break through the cordon and avail themselves of the consequent decrease in domestic security. We go over now to Ted Wilkinson, our man on the ground in Straddlefitch. Can you hear me, Ted?’

        A photograph of Digicom’s roving reporter appeared, accompanied by the sound of a male voice via a telephone. ‘Hello, Ken, yes I can hear you okay. I’m stood here in a thick biohazard suit, with full helmet, gloves and breathing apparatus. It’s less than comfortable, but in the circumstances these are the minimum advisory precautions.’

        ‘I see, so can you describe the situation there?’

        ‘Well as you can imagine there’s a mixture of bewilderment and frustration amongst the locals—‘

        ‘That’s a major understatement,’ Pete shouted at the radio.

        ‘Shshshsh,’ Jane hushed.

        ‘So what started as an inconvenience has progressed to a major incident and a serious concern to the Government,’ Ted continued.

        ‘I see,’ Ken replied, ‘so what are the theories to date?’

        ‘Well, Ken, that’s a difficult one. None of the experts are committing themselves, but as far as I can tell it sounds like something has got into the town’s water supply. So far it doesn’t seem to pose a direct threat to the people themselves, but it does appear to be targeting anything made of plastic.’

        ‘That’s antique plastic or Government-approved recycled, Ted?’

        ‘It’s predominantly been the recycled, Ken, but it has no respect for antiquity either.’

        ‘Is there any suspicion of foul-play, maybe even some form of terrorist attack?’

        ‘Not at this stage.’

        ‘So is there any indication of how long the situation might last?’

        ‘Not at present, but I’ll keep you informed. Meanwhile, food parcels are being dropped into the affected zone and tankers fitted with super-secure one-way safety valves are pumping fresh water along a series of metal pipes. The lorries are positioned just outside the perimeter, so the hope is that an uncontaminated supply can be delivered to the populace.’

        ‘Okay, well thanks for that report Ted and be sure to let us know as soon as you hear anything else that might throw some more light on the situation.’

        ‘Will do, Ken, bye for now,’ Ted Wilkinson said as he signed off and began the journey back to the perimeter to get out of the clinging biohazard suit and undergo decontamination procedures.

        ‘Well, that’s the state of affairs in Straddlefitch and, as promised, we’ll bring you any further news just as soon as we receive it. Now onto the other main events of the day—‘

        Pete switched the radio off. ‘They’re not telling us everything, are they?’

        ‘Nope, but then they’re probably concerned about panicking people and worrying them even more than they are already.’

        ‘No doubt. Still, at least one good thing’s come out of it,’ Pete said positively.

        ‘And what’s that?’

        Pete leant forward to kiss her on the nose and she laughed. Over the coming weeks he taught Jane how to hand-wash her clothes, how to run them through a mangle and peg them out in the warm summer air to dry. He showed her how to milk the goats and make cheese, collect honey, make beeswax candles, plant and grow vegetables and cook meals with mouth-wateringly fresh ingredients. They’d fill the huge old iron bath and share it, after which Pete would teach her how to play guitar, or they’d sit and read one of the many real books from his grandparents’ collection.

* * *

        It took two weeks for the scientists to trace the source of the water contamination back to a nearby underground stream. With the aid of a military fibre optic crawler they traced the stream back to the ancient rubbish tip. They isolated the source and redirected the stream’s course, such that it bypassed the Household Waste Amenity Point altogether, but by then it was too late. It only took a few people to spread it beyond the Straddlefitch exclusion zone. The microbes had adapted again, such that they were equally at home in water, in the human bloodstream, bladder, urinary tract and skin. Although totally harmless to human metabolism, they were impervious to both the immune system and to every antibiotic that was thrown at them. Plastiphagus Mutans, as it was christened, was in Europe within a month and global by the end of the year, such was its reproductive powers and the itinerant nature of its host. It became known as “The Anti-Midas Touch” and even attempts at halting its spread by supplying everyone with latex gloves—and then nitrile—failed, as it soon developed a taste for them as well. It digested its way through plastic-coated conduits, gas pipes and plumbing. At first the manufacturing industry could keep up with the pace, as there were still immense stocks of plastic awaiting the Government-approved recycling process, but in time Plastiphagus Mutans ruled the world.

        As housings, motherboards and keyboards gave way, the loss of computing power caused untold damage to global stock markets, communication and commerce. No one had realized how dependant the human race had become on the technologies that supported the delicate infrastructure. The silicone chip had been king, but it was plastic that had held it all together. Transport faltered and failed, power sources struggled and died, satellites—although out of the reach of P. Mutans—were rendered deaf and dumb. The clock was turned back almost 200 years, in merely five. The pampered western population of the planet had to look to what remained of the Third World for guidance, as cities perished and towns ground to a halt, with villages and local communities becoming the norm.

        Mankind was the master of invention, but nature would reign supreme, as sure as seeds find root ‘twixt the cracks in the concrete.


copyright 2006 DJ Burnham.

DJ Burnham has had a lifelong love of Science Fiction. Having recently retired from an exciting sideline in concert promotion for the likes of Roy and Nick Harper, he has found time to pen some stories of his own, many of which have appeared in webzines such as Silverthought, Bewildering Stories and Aphelion. With a full-length novel in the pipeline, he also writes poetry and creates original decoupage-style artwork. DJ Burnham lives in Brighton, England with his wife Sue and their cat. He is a Health Service worker by day and a dreamer by night.

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